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Swedish Oscar contender A Man Called Ove gives heart to grouchy old men

We all know a man called Ove.
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Rolf Lassgard plays an unhappy widower in the Oscar nominated Swedish film A Man Called Ove.

We all know a man called Ove. That old man who yells at you to clean up after your dog (before it has even befouled anything), who chides children playing, who enforces the archaic bylaws in your townhouse complex and is ever on the lookout for disturbers of the peace. Only, for inflexible men like Ove, there is no peace.  

Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards is the light and tender A Man Called Ove, based on Fredrick Backman’s best-selling novel. It stars Rolf Lassgard as Ove, an unhappy widower. Ove is fired from his engineering company after 43 years and immediately launches a new routine: he buys flowers daily to place at his wife’s grave, and he makes daily rounds in his housing development, acting as honorary recycling enforcer, parking lieutenant, rule stickler and general curmudgeon.

One day Ove puts on his best suit and decides to kill himself. This is where we see a young Ove (Filip Berg) meet Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the love of his life, and witness the litany of great joys and misfortunes that have molded Ove into the chunk of stone that he is today.

“There was nothing before Sonja and there is nothing after her.”

The flashbacks come just in time to humanize a character we might easily have given up on, while director Hannes Holm manages the tricky balance between dark subject matter and the silly, occasionally weird Wes Anderson-style vignettes of the past.  

In addition to his relationship with Sonja, there is the friendship and longstanding feud between Ove and Rune (Borje Lundberg), a tiff not caused by religion or politics but by the impassable crevasse that exists between Volvo and Saab owners.

The reverie — and suicide — are interrupted by the ruckus of a new family moving in across the street. Heavily pregnant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) arrives with her clueless husband Patrick (Tobias Almborg) and two daughters, dissolving the community’s tenuous order and giving Ove a reason to live, at least long enough to yell at them about their shoddy parking job and excessive noise.

No-nonsense Parvaneh isn’t deterred: she has seen hard times and sees through Ove’s tough exterior. But it’s the children who first coax humanity out of the old man, as children often do. With apologies to his dead wife, Ove keeps finding reasons to delay ending his life and soon finds more reasons to live than to die.

There’s no doubt that the narrative is predictable, but it’s also universal, and anchored by a lovely performance by Lassgard, who manages to be moving even as his character is immovable. And when Ove does finally break down with long-swallowed tears, it is with a grief we can all relate to. A Man Called Ove has done a great service to the grouches of the world, who might just be given some leeway after people watch this film.

A Man Called Ove screens at International Village.